Hooniverse Asks: Can you navigate without GPS?

Remember I was asking you about automotive events in which you’d like to compete? In that post, I mention a Land Rover event trying to capture some of the essence of the OG Camel Trophy stuff. Well, I’m participating in the Land Rover Trēk event next week. Part of this means I need to know how to read a compass and figure out a heading. I’m no Boy Scout, so I never learned this sort of thing. I’ve got some homework to do.

Now, I have crossed the country in a vehicle using paper maps. That bit is actually pretty easy. You can pop into your local AAA and snag the fold-out variety which is still quite helpful even today. But all of that info is also available in the palm of your hand via your smartphone. And the average new car has a navigation system of some sort fitted anyway.

But if you had to navigate without your phone or a nav system, could you get the job done? I suspect a fair portion of our readership actually doesn’t even own a vehicle with a nav system, so the answer is likely yes. But I still want to pose the question.

9 Comments

  1. I can’t tell you the names of most of the streets in my town– I usually can’t even recall the name of the main road in my neighborhood. And I can’t tell you even one digit in the exit number to get to my house from the nearby interstate. Sometimes it takes me a few seconds to recall my street address. I have a terrible memory when it comes to literal things, but I’m fortunate to have a very “visual” brain. My mental map is damned good, my mind automatically monitors cardinal direction, and I can generally spend a few minutes with a map and then travel long or complicated distances without repeatedly referring to it again.

    Don’t get me wrong– GPS is handy, and Waze has literally saved me hours of sitting in traffic over the past few years. But if a meteor shower wrecked the satellites tomorrow, it wouldn’t affect me much.

    1. I am very much the same way. I struggle to keep street names and numbers straight, but remembering actual routes come fairly easy to me. About the only time I use gps is when I’m in a urban area and trying to locate a specific place.

  2. “Orienteering” is the merit badge you get in the Boy Scouts (and included more than map & compass practices.) “Navigation” is a bit out of place as it’s used these days, since it originally referred to the maritime craft. “Wayfinding” is a word we use in the museum for all the maps and signs on the floor, and is a terrestrial practice.

    So, I can think of different words for it, but can I do it? Probably.

    When I started riding the Africa Twin on logging roads by myself (which is stupid, don’t do that) I was able to follow an unmarked road with many spurs off it without getting stuck or off track. That was the “road most traveled” technique (‘looks like most people went this way, and only logging trucks went that way’). That experience made me finally get some mapping software for my smartphone, and turn on the GPS services. I could easily have been totally screwed.

    At the same time I took a keen interest in orienteering and bought a fairly good $50 compass and started printing out maps on my wide-format inkjet printer. It was pandemic lockdown times so I had plenty of time to walk around my neighborhood with a city map taking bearings on salient features and triangulating my position. I think I could do it now, it’s only been a year since I toyed around with that compass.

    Provided, of course, I remember to bring both map and compass with me. I can’t navigate by the stars (unless you count the Sun as a star) and am useless in a steppe / desert situation like is common in California. The moss here grows on all sides of the trees, or there aren’t any trees.

  3. Our only car with built-in nav is the Leaf, and I’ve never even tried using it. Mostly, I just run Google Maps which, amazingly, even worked like a charme in rural Kyrgyzstan. There, a “road” could be a barely visible wheel track on the steppe…

    When navigating with maps, or just following road signs, I will often drive wrong a turn or two. But I do usually arrive – and will remember the area from then on.

  4. A bit of both, I suppose.

    I learned to SCUBA dive in a quarry with visibility of about 10 feet, and part of the test was getting to certain submerged items of interest, using a compass. And yes, I have used paper maps fairly extensively. And I’ve taught scouts to navigate using things like “If you hear the highway to your left you are heading south, so if it’s on your right you are heading north.”

    But I have also had the experience of taking a phone-gps-suggested shortcut at night on a road in the middle of nowhere, and then getting out of range for the phone signal. The result of that is that while I knew which general direction I needed to be going, I didn’t have an overlay of the roads, and ended up dead-ended by a large ranch and a river. I had to backtrack until I was back within phone range, so I could download the rest of the map to get to the destination.

  5. Well, seeing’s how I still don’t own a phone, and the only street vehicle we have with built-in navigation is the MiSSus’ hot rod…yeah, no problem.

    Howeva’ – I will gladly admit to absolutely loving GPS in a couple of different scenarios: Out in the boat, it saves a TON of time using GPS to find the reefs instead of the old skool way of drive around, drive around, drive around, ok there it is. The other is also off-road. Our latest snowmobiles have GPS and what a revelation. You know where you are, how far you are away from civilization, and how close to the nearest fuel stop. Super helpful when you’re taking new trails and riding in places you’ve never gone before.

  6. I learned how to use a topo map and compass as a Boy Scout and more or less successfully completed an orienteering event when my son was a Cub Scout so I can navigate with a Silva Ranger and a good map if necessary but I would definitely want to reread “Be Expert With Map and Compass” before doing for real .
    I mostly use GPS for driving and following unfamiliar bike routes but I also make a point of having a paper map and compass as a backup.

  7. I’ll mostly use GPS to plan a route, and then memorize it well enough to get there, rather than rely on it en route. So, yes, I could work with paper maps again if needed (hell, I still own a copy of the Great Britain A-Z atlas picked up on the way to Oxford). Although, I love StreetView so I really know what visual cues to look for.

  8. First, does Land Rover understand that “Land Rover Trēk” properly pronounced is “Land Rover Treek”? I think you should pronounce it that way during the event next week. 😁

    Second, I don’t think navigation is common outside of luxury cars or top trims. Our 2021 Accord Hybrid EX-L is the second from the top trim and doesn’t have navi. It does have android auto which is functionally the same.

    Lastly, I spent many years navigating without gps and have a pretty good sense of direction. Even now, I frequently look at the GPS to figure out the best route but don’t actually use it while driving. I could go back if I needed to.

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